User Owned Data and Web 3.0

The creaking foundations of our 40 year old internet are groaning under the strain of centrally owned user data. Attempts are under way to fix it with sticky backed plastic; e.g. recent moves to make social media bosses liable for the content users publish on their platforms. However, the political, regulatory, legislative and technical challenges in making such solutions work are substantial.

It is interesting to compare the situation with the new Internet (web 3.0) that Blockstack and others are building. Here things are quite different. Blockstack, for example, are building strong new foundations for an ecosystem of new sharing and social media applications to grow. These applications all begin with the principal that the users online identity and data is something that belongs to the user rather than the application— effectively pulling inside out the model that the current tech giants rely upon.

The effect is known as decentralisation and in this case it is attempt to decentralise power. User data is the lubricant of the 21st century and the 40 year old infrastructure of the traditional internet has encompassed an asymmetry that has lead to the favouring of a very small number of companies that have come to dominate the entire space.

Online Identity is the First Step

Recent innovations — notably Bitcoin and blockchain technology mean the situation needn’t continue like this. Blockstack uses some unique properties of bitcoin to allow users to create their own online identities. It’s a subtle but extremely important shift. Taking the responsibility for authenticating a user away from the platform and giving it to the user is a fundamental renegotiation of the power relationship between the two entities. It’s the starting point for genuine competition between online platforms because it the gives the user a degree of choice — if they don’t like the way one company behaves they can leave — taking their online identity with them.

It is important to note the notion of identity isn’t being defined by this move. All that is happening is we are creating a link between the bitcoin blockchain and a human readable label. The intention is to allow users to determine their own ‘identity’ in the context of the applications they are using where the concept of identity may vary from foot size in a shoe store to a passport backed id for say booking a flight.

User Owned Data is the Second Leap

User data is not stored in any blockchain (it won’t scale) nor on computers of random people (it won’t be reliable).

The second big step Blockstack have taken is to demonstrate how user owned identity delivers the ultimate goal of user owned data. In the current situation I login in to say Instagram and upload images and text. As soon as my data hits their servers the data becomes Instagrams — they don’t manage it on your behalf — they own it, monetize it and sell it back to you in the form of targeted advertising. In the new internet Blockstack are building the data never gets uploaded to the platforms servers. Instead it gets uploaded to some disk space that the user controls — it might be their dropbox account or an S3 bucket in Amazon infrastructure or to a Microsoft Azure account. At first sight this looks odd. Surely Dropbox or Amazon now own this data? There are in fact a couple of big differences;

  1. The user can move the data from one storage location to a different location if it suits them to do so.
  2. The data can be encrypted by the application so that dropbox and Amazon engineers have no way of reading it let alone monetising it.
  3. The user can block access to their data to an application and grant access to their data to another.

Imagine being able to block access to facebook from reading your posts or displaying your images. We are so used to thinking of this data as facebook data that the thought entails cognitive dissonance. In the new internet a new social media app could come along at any moment and dethrone the current king.

Freedom of Speech vs Online Safety

The current debate about how to regulate the tech giants centres upon balance between censorship vs free speech. The more facebook is forced into by way of protecting users from pernicious posts the more the door swings open to censoring end users. Another way of looking at this is if users are forced to provide real identities then the risk grows of silencing users for whom revealing their identity may entails a level of personal threat.

The new internet has the potential to resolve this dilemma by enabling platforms requiring different levels of real identity to coexist. For example there may be a web 3.0 platform that requires login with an identity verified by a central authority such as a passport office and another that allows users to participate anonymously. This can be achieved transparently and give individual users the ability to assess the risks for themselves rather than having tech illiterate ministers making decisions behind closed doors with the CEOs of the tech giant.

Where are we Now?

Schematic of Radicle Peer to Peer Marketplace.

The infrastructure for all this is already available and being actively developed. Over a 80 d-apps (decentralised applications) are listed on the Blockstack d-app store and more are being added every day.

We are building Radicle; a peer to peer marketplace for art on Blockstack with payment on bitcoin and lightning network.